I’d say it started innocently enough but our parties were rarely innocent, even around Christmas time. We tried to keep it small but…well, you know how it is. In truth, I liked the big parties, and I was known for my party throwing ability. Which is to say I knew which caterers to call, and how many cases of wine to order. Having people over made our 5,000 square foot house seem homey. Of course, that night I would regret having so many people over that I didn’t really know.
Susan, the only person I would have really called a close friend at this thing, showed me photos of her baby girl. We had met years ago, when she was working as a makeup artist on a film I was in. I realized I had left Susan’s baby gift in my bedroom, so I excused myself and ran upstairs…and opened the door on my husband with his 25-year-old co-star.
He made some noise to start to explain or apologize. I’m not sure which because I left the room and…I skipped back. It wasn’t even a decision. One moment I was seeing him there, the next my mind was turning back. How far back did I want to go? Five minutes? Twenty? Twenty. I don’t exactly see time in reverse, per se. It’s not like rewinding a DVD, or God, even a VHS. It is more like seeing moments through a rainy window at night. Everything was blurred, but you have context for what those blurs mean.
Suddenly I was back downstairs, standing in front of Susan. She was talking about her baby, so she didn’t notice my eyes glazing over the moment my mind snaped back into my past body. There’s nothing I can do about that moment—lord knows I’ve tried. I’m stuck looking like an idiot with a blank expression on my face every time I skip back. Susan and I repeated nearly the same conversation we had before. But instead of going upstairs to get her present, I introduced her to a colleague. Soon after, Susan made her exit from the party and I went into the dining room to get myself a large glass of wine.
A few minutes later my husband descended the staircase, coked out of his mind. His co-star emerged five minutes later. They obviously thought they got away with their rendezvous without anyone being the wiser. I poured another glass of wine. I smiled and I laughed; inside I wanted to scream.
My husband—to protect all parties involved, let’s call him “Steve”—was a not a bad man. He was smart and successful; funny and insecure. He was a hard-bodied movie star, which means in those times of “my husband and I each get three celebrities we’re allowed to have sex with” he was often in people’s list of three. I mean to be honest, so was I. I was turning forty in February, but I did alright. In our three years of being together, and two years of marriage, I had accepted that many people wanted to have sex with my husband. There’s something about celebrity that makes normal human beings act absolutely batshit crazy. People threw themselves at him, as they did at me. My smart, funny, insecure husband was generally good about turning down the constant—and I do mean constant—flow of people throwing themselves, their nude photos, their panties, in his direction. This was the second time I had caught him coked out with some girl since we’d been married. The first time I caught him having sex with a production assistant in a bathroom at a wrap party, and I skipped back to intercept him from meeting the girl. So that sex hadn’t actually happened in this timeline. Of course, even though the sex didn’t happen I still remembered it happening. I started on SSRIs after that.
Steve didn’t cheat unless he’d done coke, and he didn’t do coke unless he was at a party and some shit brought it. The last two years of our marriage had been an obstacle course, with me trying to separate Steve from the coke and from the girls that would find him when he was on coke.
I held my glass of red wine on my patio and looked out over LA. We had a hell of a view; we ought to for the 10 million I paid for the house. At that moment I would have given anything for a Christmas with snow. LA Christmases never really seemed like Christmas to me, probably because I grew up in Cañon City, Colorado. There was a week left until Christmas, so maybe, through some miracle, a snowstorm would materialize.
The party went on another couple of hours. People slowly made their goodbyes and luckily there was no more adultery—at least, not in my marriage. Steve fell asleep on a couch as soon as I had ushered the last of our guests out the door. Not willing to go into our bedroom, I slept in the guest room instead.
The next morning a driver picked me up to go to the studio. I had just started voice work for an animated kids’ movie. It was a good cast—Ian McKellen was playing a rabbit in it. I love Ian McKellen. I mean, honestly, who doesn’t love Ian McKellen? I was quiet in the car, preoccupied with what had happened in my bedroom the night before.
I wondered dully why I hadn’t just skipped back the night before and kept them from going upstairs? I still could; it had only been a day. The only conclusion I came to as the car pulled up to the studio was this: because I was tired. Something I had learned from skipping was that there was only so much that I could control. But those bits that I couldn’t control, they came for me time and again. They were still real to me, those things I saw that didn’t happen. Like ghosts I carried with me.
The longest I had gone without skipping back was two months. Most of the time when I skipped, I was just turning back minutes. Sometimes a few hours. In rare cases, a day or two. One time while on LSD, I accidently skipped back a month. It was terrifying. I had wrapped a movie and found myself reshooting the whole thing over again. I got nominated for an Oscar, which led to my new acting process—to shoot and then skip back, and do it better the second, third, or fourth time. I had been cheating at acting since I was eighteen, when I started rewinding time on any bad auditions I had. It didn’t mean I always got the job, not at all. But it helped me carve out a career, and to keep me out of harm’s way of the perverts and predators in Hollywood. Staying in “filming shape” at nearly forty was a breeze. I could eat anything I wanted, and just skip back to before I ate it. I had an eating disorder on a whole other level. I was a lucky girl, and I lived a charmed life. At least, that’s what I believed most days. Or rather, it’s what I told myself.
I wrapped my day of recording and headed home. My agent called when I got in the car and said she wanted to talk about “my next phase.” I could hear what she wasn’t saying, which is that I was turning forty soon and that tends to be a problem for actresses. It had started a year or two ago—I started getting the “wife” and “mom” scripts. Except that I was no good at the mom scripts because I had never been a mom. My career was cooling off and Hollywood didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with me. Steve was three years older than me and was being courted to play the next Bond villain. And I was voicing a deer in a kids’ movie. “With Ian McKellen!” my brain snapped in reply, like a manic recording. Yes. With Ian McKellen. My career was fine. My marriage was fine except that my husband did coke and banged girls who were born after the Challenger explosion. I was in a movie with Ian McKellen. I mean, not in the same room as him. I was adjacent, tangentially associated, with Ian McKellen. It was probably better that way. If he were a jerk, I’d never know; I could continue to admire him from afar and not be disappointed. There I was, in a movie I didn’t want to be in, with Ian McKellen. Everyone should be so lucky.
Steve was back to his old self when I arrived home. I got a kiss on the cheek and he told me he was putting together dinner. He was a good cook, from his days of being a struggling actor and working in restaurants.
Out of a strong mix of curiosity, jealousy, and paranoia, I grabbed his cell phone off the coffee table while he was distracted with cooking. I headed to my bedroom for some privacy while I invaded his. Sitting on my bed, I shook as I scrolled through a history of interactions between Steve and the 25-year-old. Whatever narrative I had built about it being about the drugs and not about him…it was wrong. Overcome with the feeling I was going to be sick, I retreated to the bathroom and locked the door. I turned on the shower and hoped the sound of running water would cover the sound of my crying. What could I do? Skip back weeks? There was no timeline for me to go to where I wouldn’t remember this, even if I could prevent it. After some time, I collected myself and headed downstairs, his cell phone in hand.
* * *
On December 24th, my plane touched down in Colorado Springs. It had been years since I had been in Colorado; my Mom had died a few years before while I was abroad shooting a movie. So, I’d spend Christmas alone. It was better that way; I was wretched company, and I couldn’t imagine anyone putting up with me in my current state.
Beautiful white snow greeted me as I drove my rental car out of the airport. So much had gone wrong that week, but at least the snow was as it should be. It took me a short hour to make my way to Cañon City from the airport. I checked into the St. Cloud, a charming old brick hotel from the 1800s. The woman who ran it had been friends with my mom and wouldn’t give me up. I didn’t have a plan or know how long I was staying; I told myself I’d stay until I felt better.
The hotel had been renovated many times, once very recently. The St. Cloud looked different than I remembered, more modern maybe. My room had crisp white sheets and a black headboard on the bed, in addition to the dark wood and the blue and white area rugs. I opened the curtains to reveal a picturesque view of the mountains. Snow gently fell on downtown, and I felt justified in my decision to get out of LA.
Susan called then, and in her delicate way let me know that Steve had been photographed with the 25-year-old, and it was starting to make the rounds on social media. I wondered if the ink was dry on that Bond deal. Maybe Steve wasn’t as smart as I thought. She asked me if it was over between Steve and me, and I said I didn’t know.
After Susan’s call I sat in the brown leather chair and stared out the window. What did I have? I was left with a career that wasn’t fulfilling anymore, a big empty house, and my wealth. It should have been enough for me. It used to be enough. I had confronted Steve about the cheating and told him I wanted to separate. That…wasn’t how I usually handled things like that.
I started skipping around the age of seven, and I was used to the control and the freedom it gave me. Everyone experienced consequences for their actions; however, because of my ability, I hadn’t had to live with most of mine. Skipping had let me take back the wrong thing I said, make a better first impression, and try things most people would avoid because of the consequences. But most people also learned how to temper themselves and their impulses. I wondered if there were some parts of me missing because I could skip. Maybe I was missing out on the human experience.
I had decided a long time ago to keep my time travel small. The natural question of course was, if I could time travel why didn’t I do something for humanity? At that point in my life, my answer would have been this: for the same reason most people weren’t in Doctors Without Borders. There are millions of problems in the world, and most people aren’t giving any of their time to solving them. Why should I be expected to be different? That kind of time travel hadn’t interested me, and it never seemed like something I could do on my own. There was a lot I didn’t know about time travel and potential timelines, but what I did understand intimately was cause and effect. I was using skips mostly for my own benefit, but there were a few accidents I had prevented. I had saved two lives because of my skips, which felt like big events to me. I sure as hell wasn’t going to press my luck by trying to affect something big.
At 4 p.m. I realized that I wasn’t in LA but a small town in Colorado; if I wanted to get food other than room service, I sure as hell better get it before everything closed for Christmas. I bundled up and headed out of my hotel. Down the street I could see the glow of the sign for Murray’s Saloon and hear loud, festive voices inside. I found myself drawn to the sounds and I stood outside for a bit, looking in to watch the people. My mood kept me from entering, so I kept walking. A short distance later I found a Thai restaurant that was open and next to them, with neon lights blazing, was the local pot shop, also open. Way to have priorities, Cañon City. I ordered enough Thai food for four people and then on a whim, I headed into the pot shop.
I didn’t usually do drugs, not after my accidental LSD trip back in time. But I was cutting myself some slack today. Being out of control of my time travel was not something I ever wanted to repeat again, but I had done pot before without any “bad trip” issues. The people in the Thai restaurant hadn’t seemed to recognize me, but the stoner working the pot shop definitely did. I got a couple edibles and resigned myself to the fact that come the next morning my hotel would be crawling with people wanting to get a photo of me, post-breakup.
The St. Cloud, or rather its bar, was bustling with people when I returned. A handsome man at the bar turned towards me and gave me an appreciative look. I gave him a nod and kept walking. Maybe someday, but not today.
I spent the rest of Christmas Eve eating Thai food and watching the snowfall. My sense of peace was shattered when a “forgive me” text arrived from Steve. Twenty minutes later he tried to call, twice. I muted my phone and reached for a pot cookie. I was having yet another panic attack, and I just needed to calm down.
My eyes closed, I laid on the floor of my hotel room and tried to take deep breaths. I didn’t want to feel like this anymore. The hardwood felt oddly insubstantial to me, and I felt the equilibrium of my body shift, and sink into it, and then past it. Maybe I shouldn’t have had the whole cookie. Beneath me, the floor was gone, and I could no longer hear the faint hum of the heater; my senses stopped relaying that I was in a hotel room. Opened my eyes, and I saw stars. Stars and interstellar dust, in every direction. I was standing up now, and I tried to understand what had happened. In the distance, I saw a bright light approaching. Or rather, I was approaching it. A river of blue light.
As I got closer, I realized that it wasn’t just blue but made from many other colors—red, orange, purple, yellow. Like tiny threads of electricity running along a current, it flowed. I was looking at time; it was beautiful. The river seemed to go on forever, against a background of darkness and stardust. To my left, I noticed a shadow next to the river. The shadow moved and I recoiled, instinctively retreating back into myself. I had the sensation of falling. My stomach lurched as if I had changed direction suddenly. Then suddenly I was back, laying on the hotel floor. What was that?
* * *
On Christmas Day I woke up early and ordered room pancakes from room service. I grabbed my mug of tea and stared out the window to watch the snow fall, trying not to think about the fact I had so very few people to call on Christmas.
I had been time traveling for over thirty years and yet I knew so little about it. I didn’t know why I could do it—certainly, none of the family members seem to have had that ability. At least, none that ‘fessed up to it when I asked them when I was seven. After some consideration, I ate half a pot cookie and tried to find my way back to the river of light.
When I saw the time river again, the shadow was not there. After inspecting the river for a bit, I figured out what I was seeing in the light. To my left was the past and in front of me was the present. If I kept following the river to my right, would I eventually find the future? From where I was standing it looked like the future went on and on forever, to a vanishing point.
My other discovery was that those small colors of light within the river were variations in time. I realized that one of those yellow variations I was looking at in 2017 was…me. I had prevented a car accident that saved a woman’s life; and the yellow strand of time continued to my present. Were all those other color threads variations in time? I inspected a similar purple variation in time and found it unfamiliar. I felt a chill. I wasn’t the only time traveler out there.
The next day, I was distracted by what I had seen at the river. Unless there were some sort of natural variations in the timeline, there were others like me out there. It was an intriguing and terrifying thought. How many of us would it take to create the variations I had seen? A dozen? Two dozen? Were all my skips visible in the river, or just the big ones? Most of the variations were small when compared with the magnitude of the river. If I could see variations in time from other jumpers, that meant they could see mine—someone could be watching me. I needed to find out more, so that evening I returned to the river.
Traveling was easier this time and when I arrived, there was a man standing next to the river downstream.
He was Asian and dressed in a classic style with a pair of brown slacks and a light blue button up shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His face was serious and thoughtful as he examined the river, and I guessed that he was in his mid-30s. Finally, he looked up and saw me, a look of shock registering on his face. I guess he wasn’t used to seeing people here.
“Hello,” I said from a few feet away from him. At least sound worked in this strange place.
“Kon’nichiwa,” he said, smiling.
“Hajimemashite,” I replied.
A look of relief flashed on his face, and he replied in a flood of Japanese, none of which I could follow. I spoke enough Japanese for film press tours, which wasn’t much. There were a few things I could pick out. His name was Yamato.
“Sumimasen, watashi no nihongo wa warui desu, (My Japanese is bad),” I explained in my halting Japanese.
He laughed and said, “Hai (Yes).” Well, then. Yamato apparently had a sense of humor.
We spent quite a bit of time there, trying to communicate. I was able to tell him my name, but not much beyond that. He didn’t understand any of my English. Even so, there was an urgency to his demeanor. We were able to communicate that we should meet there again, but indicating time was impossible even though we could indicate the place.
Before we parted, Yamato grabbed my hand. “Daisaigai,” he said steadily. He wanted me to remember that phrase.
“Daisaigai,” I repeated back to him, and I nodded that I understood. That I would understand. He turned and walked towards the past and I wondered if I would ever see him again. I hoped so.
* * *
Daisaigai. Catastrophe. Yamato was trying to warn me of something.
The warning had given me a new purpose, and I was determined to communicate with Yamato. This would have been easier if I were physically traveling to the river. But this was a journey of the mind, and I didn’t get to bring props. Which meant I needed to learn to speak Japanese. I installed an app on my phone and started lessons.
An hour in, Steve called me and this time I answered, ready to finally face my failed marriage. He wanted me back. I told him no. Maybe that was truly the first time I was able to see it; I had never even considered telling Steve about my ability to skip. What a thing to hide from someone. To hide from everyone. I said goodbye to Steve, effectively closing that chapter on my life.
It took four days and ten trips to the river to find Yamato again. He looked relieved as I was that we had met up again. In hopes of meeting him again, I had memorized a message in Japanese for him. I told him I was from 2019, and that I had found the river by accident. That I understood there was a catastrophe.
He nodded, “Arigatō gozaimashita (Thank you).” He seemed relieved to hear my Japanese but disappointed that I couldn’t talk with him.
Yamato had also prepared something for me, in English. “Daisaigai. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. 1945,” he said.
Dear God. Yamato waited, to see if I understood. Was Yamato from 1945? I thought about his style of clothes and the place next to the river I had seen him.
“Yamato, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 1945?” I asked.
The United States had killed over a hundred thousand people with those two World War II bombings. Did Yamato want to change that? Was that why he was at the river, examining it? He was still waiting for my reply.
“Hiroshima. Nagasaki. 1945. Daisaigai,” I said, agreeing with him. “I’m sorry,” I said finally. He may not know what I was saying, but I still needed to say it.
Yamato spoke more Japanese to me, but I didn’t understand any of it.
“ Ashita koko de aimashō (Meet me here tomorrow),” I said.
“Hai,” Yamato said. Hands in his pockets, he walked away from me into the past.
I slept little that night, thinking about time and its consequences. How do you stop an atom bomb? And if you could, would something just as bad happen? Would human beings just inevitably start the next bad thing? Beyond questions of human nature and morality, there were logistics. I was born in 1980—could I travel back in time further than that? What would a jump to the 1940s mean for my body? It should be impossible. It might even kill me. But time was now a river to me, and there was still so much I didn’t know. I wondered if Yamato had traveled back in time before his birth. Yet another thing I wanted to ask him about.
Thankfully, the next day I was relieved to meet Yamato at the river, right on time.
“I was afraid I would not be able to find you again,” he said, smiling.
Oh, boy. “You speak English?” I asked.
“Yes,” Yamato said. “It’s been three years since I saw you last. I have been studying.”
“It’s been three years since we last met?” I asked.
“Yes. How long for you?”
“I thought it would be better this way, and I also wanted to see what happened to Japan after the war was over,” he explained. “Can I show you something?” He indicated I should walk with him, towards the past—his present—in the river. After walking for a while, he found the place he was looking for. He paused and indicated a part of the river. “This is when I am from—1949.”
Something caught my eye downstream, in the past. I walked towards it to get a better look. Pieces were streaked in red, larger than the rest. It looked like the river was bleeding. “What is that?” I asked.
Yamato sighed, “That is Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
“You tried changing it by yourself since we last talked?” I had thought Yamato wanted my help in changing time.
“No, I changed it before I met you,” he admitted. “But it did not work, not as I had hoped. I made it worse. Japan had also been working on an atomic bomb during the war, and developed it faster than the U.S. They bombed the west coast, and thousands of people died. Japan won the war. I did not want so many people to die, so I changed things. I went back in time to be at Hungnam to make sure they did not make the atom bomb. But the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I did not know they were close.” he said with sadness when he reached the end of his story.
“I’m living in the time variation you caused by stopping Japan’s atom bomb,” I said. My future was one big variation, and not the original timeline.
“Yes. Changing the timeline had unexpected results. I understand many terrible things happened during the war. I need your help. You are from the future, and you may know more than I do. How do I stop this?”
“You want to stop the atom bomb from being developed?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I don’t know if we can. The problem is that someone will come up with it eventually,” I said. “There’s only so long you can stop the advancement of science.”
“I have thought about this. If the bomb were discovered at a time of peace, instead of during a war, things might be different. Perhaps it would not be used,” he suggested.
“Maybe,” I said. “But what if we make it worse?”
Yamato turned to look at the river and said, “I have to try. This happened because of me and I must fix it. Maybe we do not need large change—just small things. Tell me, woman from the future—how do I keep the U.S. from bombing Japan?”
“Will Japan surrender without being bombed?”
“I don’t know,” Yamato admitted.
“Maybe preventing the technology from being developed is easier.”
“We would have to know where they’re building the bomb,” Yamato said.
“We do. The Manhattan Project developed the atom bomb. It’s in Oakridge, Tennessee,” I explained. Yamato looked at me, surprised. “There’s another thing about The Secret City in Oakridge, Tennessee—they employed a lot of women, and I’d fit right in.”
* * *
It’s April 4, 2020 and we’re in Paris, my favorite city and at my favorite time of year. Yamato leisurely reads a French paper while I sip my coffee. He looks very handsome, in his bomber jacket and blue button up shirt. My French is still better than his, so from time to time he asks me what certain words in the paper mean. Our conversation is a mix of Japanese and English—his English remains much better than my Japanese. Of course, he dedicated three years to learning English, whereas I have learned Japanese bit by bit, over the years.
Things haven’t been easy, but of course we didn’t choose this path because it’s easy. We chose it because we wanted to make things better. The first few years were hard, until we started recruiting the others. We’ve dedicated ourselves to one hundred years of peace for humanity, and beyond that humanity is on its own. Yamato believes that if we can establish a few generations of peace and prosperity, people will set their expectations accordingly and maintain it themselves. I am less sure that people won’t slide back into constant war and greed, but I have always been the less optimistic of the two of us. I think Yamato’s early catastrophe with the timeline made him resolved to be its caretaker. His optimism and his idealism are why I fell in love with him.
Despite having seen the river of time, I think of time as a spider web. You pull on one strand and the shape of it changes. Pull on the wrong thread, and the whole web comes down. As we change one problem, we encounter another. Avert nuclearization, and the war goes on longer than in the original timeline. We saved a lot of lives and prevented a lot of suffering—wars, pandemics, natural disasters, climate change. But I’d be foolish if I thought that people weren’t still getting hurt. There are always people we couldn’t save. I never intended it to go this far—but once we started, it was impossible to stop. Time is a garden that requires constant care.
No one knows my name anymore and that makes me sad sometimes, but I have purpose now. The Paris newspaper tells me that Steve has recently gotten married to some beautiful young starlet. Of course, Steve and I never met in this timeline because I was never born. Something we changed in World War II caused it, and we’re still not sure what it was. I don’t exist in this new timeline, so there is no younger self for me to skip back to now. But I have made my peace with being missing from time. Yamato has an alternate version of himself out there, one that got married after the war and had children. I’m sure it’s strange for him, but he rarely comments on it.
This is our life’s work now—being guardians of the timeline. And in the meantime, in between figuring out time’s puzzles, Yamato and I live our lives. I have purpose, and I have love. For some people, it might not be enough. But it is enough for me.